This piece originally ran on Al Jazeera America.
When members of Congress talk cybersecurity, it doesn’t take long for the discussion to turn apocalyptic. The Feb. 27 meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee was no different when Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Gen. Keith Alexander, retiring director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and commander of United States Cyber Command, to describe in 30 seconds what a major cyberattack could do to the United States.
“I think they could shut down the power in the Northeast,” Gen. Alexander responded. “Shut down the New York stock exchange … shut down some of our government networks … impact our transportation areas … water supplies, they could do damage to that.” If something like this occurred, according to Alexander, the wreckage could include thousands of dead Americans and trillions of dollars in damage.
“On the cyber front, you’ve described a Pearl Harbor on steroids,” Graham replied. Alexander did not disagree.
While there are legitimate cyberthreats in the world, these melodramatic hypotheticals don’t help real cyberdefense and deterrence. Instead they serve only to create a sense of urgency around passing rash and overreaching laws that undermine Americans’ privacy even more — a tall task after whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations. (Full disclosure: The American Civil Liberties Union, for which I work, represents Snowden.)
Should you panic or lose sleep over the prospects of a cyber–World War III? No. Don’t unplug and move to a cabin in the woods just yet.
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